Monday, June 20, 2016

Attention, Geeks: Vancouver Flea Market scene report, 2016, plus: Nathan Holiday

In the 1980's, one of my favourite places to shop was the Vancouver Flea Market, on Terminal. It's a short walk east from the Main Street Skytrain station, though I believe I was shopping there before the Skytrain even existed. It fit my needs perfectly: there were hundreds of LPs and hundreds of used books and VHS tapes, and it excited me to no end to go there and disappear for a few hours, rooting about in the dust for the diamonds. Mostly that was about Ty Scammell's record store, I believe called For the Record, tucked into the far corner, which was every bit the equal of any Vancouver record store at the time (in those days, meaning record row on Seymour and one or two shops on Granville; none of our existing institutions existed back then, except Neptoon). Scammell - an elfin hippie (photo here!) was the man responsible for bringing the New Creation's Troubled back from total obscurity, and specialized in rare psych, but also brought in punk and weirdness; he was personable and funny and happy to share music with people, spinning records on his turntable and sharing anecdotes about bands (or hockey, or weed, or life in general). 
In part it was a case of right-place-right-time, or maybe student-ready/teacher-will-come, but Ty was the man I learned about a dozen bands I came to love through, including, say, The Residents (I still remember holding up Not Available and asking "what's this?" Then buying instead The Third Reich 'n' Roll, instead, off of him, based on the cover; it remains my favourite Residents record to this day). But Ty wasn't all of it. You could buy Black Sabbath records there for a dollar back then, in those days - scratchy but playable, and often first pressing. Vancouver punk nostalgia, in particular, hadn't really come into full swing, so you could find things on the cheap that maybe would get a big price in a collector's shop, but didn't seem particularly special to the people selling it, for whom it was part of recent lived experience. In particular, I remember finding one dealer with a copy of the original Vancouver Complication - I believe the blue-and-white cover version - which I bought for a dollar, and then went directly to Ty's table, a minute's walk away, and sold for ten of fifteen times as much (probably in trade credit, but what the hell). Wish I had photographs of my experiences at the Flea, but, you know, it was pre-digital days, and film cost money... It was still the big red barn that you see today (photo stolen from their website). That much hasn't changed at all...
Somewhere, though, things went downhill at the Flea, at least for awhile. I remember trying to relive past glories, maybe ten years ago. Ty had succumbed to cancer in 2004; formats had shifted from LP to CD, and somehow, the mood in the aisles underwent a sea change. There was a period where it felt very much like a giant, slightly disreputable dollar store. There were still records, books, and movies, but they were kind of buried under imported, new, inferior cheap stuff, screamin' at you from every corner: plastic products straight from a Chinese factory, garish clothing with brands you never heard of... I seem to recall a table devoted entirely to different kinds of incense, which was kind of cool, but different from what you would find there in the 80's and 90's. I don't really remember what all I saw in the early 2000's, but it seemed more about, say, Filipino canned goods or something  - saris and karaoke CDs, I dunno - than funky weird records from Vancouver's past. What ephemera people were selling tended to be overpriced, and if you did happen to find something you wanted, you might end up having to haggle with someone from a country that kicks our ass in haggling skills. I'm sure there was a demographic that just loved it, but for people like me, it stopped being very fun, and I stopped going, for a time.
But guess what? I'm happy to report that, for whatever reason, the Vancouver Flea Market is fun again. I've gone there a few times in the last year and been totally delighted to see that a 21st century hipster vibe has come to dominate. It's still a diverse, ethnically rich, something-for-everyone kind of place, but it is practically swimming in goofy stuff that will appeal to millenials and geeks and artsy types, a cornucopia for lovers of the lowbrow (with plenty of highbrow and no-brow to boot). There are still records, books, and movies, natch - always a fixture, whatever the format - but now there are also video games, superhero action figures, and everything from collectible lunchboxes to Hotwheels to movie posters to God-knows-what, stuff that is fun to look at even if you're determined not to spend any money.
Savvy and selective dealers means, of course, that it's not all on the cheap (though it never was, really, because dealers like Ty always had real prices on their items). There are plenty of people selling records and books for a dollar, but there's also plentiful stuff for collectors that you might not have room for in your budget. "I saw a cool little erotic netsuke that I would have loved to have had if it wasn't $190," my girlfriend reports from the breakfast table as I type this. "And I bought a couple of cool little inkwells. Mostly the quantity of stuff is sort of what was surprising. You kind of have to root through stuff to find things, but some of it was better quality than I expected!"
For just one instance, Nathan Holiday (of Vancouver noise pioneers Tunnel Canary, whom I interviewed at length here), is an off-again/ on-again dealer there, an irregular regular, if you will, and presently has a booth that is just delightful to explore - small, but jam-packed with goodies, as befits his selective, artist's eye. Go straight in from the entrance and turn left, and he is just around the corner, selling everything from Tibetan Buddhist devotional art to Ultraman dolls from Japan. I snagged a copy of AKA's Red Therapy EP off him, which I've been meaning to pick up for awhile now (a no-wave project featuring Nathan's Guitar Weirdos collaborator and Straight writer Alex Varty). Last time I went, he had a bunch of movie posters from Thailand, including one for Lucio Fulci's spaghetti western Massacre Time; this time, he unrolled an even more sizeable poster for an event at the Lotus Hotel called Fallen Empires (a bit of local queer culture? I don't really know, there's no info on it online that I can find). Fans of local noise and experimental music might even be able get some Tunnel Canary stuff off him; this weekend, for instance, he had brought in some colour posters for their album Jihad to sell a guy who was asking ("I hope he's not from CSIS"). In fact, all the photos illustrating this blogpost (except the pic of the flea itself and the Thai poster, which I just lifted off eBay) are pics I took of things Nathan is presently selling at his stall, as of this last weekend. Did I mention his collection of punk rock gig posters? (But make him a real offer, folks - he's not sellin' this stuff for a buck a pop).
Nathan's is an exceptionally cool stall, and a very good advertisement for the flea market in general, but bear in mind that his is JUST ONE STALL THERE; there are dozens of other sellers, lining the four long aisles of the building (including, movie geeks be alerted, a Quebecois guy - I think - who is selling a whole bunch of cool horror, classic and cult DVDs from his own collection at a rate of two for five bucks; I nabbed Lamberto Bava's Demons, the Vincent Price House of Wax, the obscure Schwarzenegger/ Brigitte Nielsen team up Red Sonja, and a widescreen edition of John Carpenter's Starman, which you don't see that often (for some reason the fullscreen is much more common). He had plenty of stuff left, as of this writing, though I don't imagine it will last a very long time. There's another DVD and Blu-Ray seller too, who has a fair bit of interesting stuff, priced a smidge higher but still way less than you'd get the same items for at any of the used DVD shops in town...
So there you have it, the Vancouver Flea Market is cool again, and a great way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (they're only open weekends and holidays). I received no promotional considerations for writing this (though Nathan did just flat out give me that AKA EP, so thanks, man!). Admission is a buck to get in. Have fun, if you go, and tell Nathan you read about it here (don't let his tonsure intimidate, he's a very personable guy!).

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